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English words that make Nigerians say the opposite of what they mean
by Farooq Kperogi (PhD)
In this week’s column, I bring to light Nigerian English words and expressions that mean the opposite of what they are intended to mean when spoken to native English speakers:
1. “Offer course”/ “run a course”/”take a course.” I’ve grouped these expressions in one cluster because they are related, and occur primarily in university settings. Nigerian university and high school students often say they “offer” a course where native English speakers would say they “take” a course. For instance, in response to one of my Saturday columns deploring the discontinuation of the teaching of history in Nigerian secondary schools, someone wrote to tell me that he was the only one in his class who “offered history.” It had been a while since I heard someone say or write that, so I was initially puzzled. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that he meant he was the only one in his class who “took history” as a subject; others too government.
This popular misuse of “offer” in Nigerian English has real consequences for mutual intelligibility in international communication. In my December 18, 2011 column titled “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English,” I recounted the story of a Nigerian who “wrote to tell me that an American university admissions officer was bewildered when she told him she wanted to ‘offer a course in petroleum engineering’! I told her in America-and in Britain-students don’t offer courses; only schools do. To offer is to make available. Students can’t make courses available in schools; they can only take or enroll in courses that schools offer.”
So the school “offers” the course, the teacher “teaches” it, and the student “takes” it. A student can’t offer a course.
A similarly puzzling Nigerian English phraseology is the use of the word “run” to indicate enrollment in a course of study, as in, “I am running a master’s degree in English at ABU.” That expressive choice became mainstream, at least as far I am aware, after I left Nigeria. That was why when I first heard it I thought the person who “ran” a course was the director or coordinator of the course. This was how the conversation went:
“Hello. I am running a postgraduate course in mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and need your help.”
“Let me get this straight first. Do I understand you to mean that you’re the postgraduate director of the mass communication program at Nsukka? If yes, what help do you need from me to run the program?”
“No, I am not a postgraduate director. I am a PhD student.”
“A student? How do you run a program as a student? Are you a student assistant to the postgraduate director?”
“No, just a student.”
“OK. So you mean you’re enrolled in a PhD program?”
This conversation took place many years ago. Since then, I’ve heard and read many Nigerians say they are “running” a course when they mean they’re enrolled in a course. I frankly have no idea where that construction came from. But to run a department, a course, a program, etc. is to be in charge of it, to direct it, to control it.
Maybe the expression is an incompetent mimicry or misapplication of the idiom “run its course,” which is used to say that something starts, continues for a time, and then ends, as in, “I didn’t take medications for the catarrh; I just let it run its course.” But to use the idiom in place of “enrolled for a course” is simply perplexing.
I also recently became aware that Nigerian lecturers now say they “take a course” to mean they teach it. One Prof. Richard Akindele, who was recently fired from Obafemi Awolowo University for demanding sex from a female student in exchange for better grades, wrote about courses he “took” the student who exposed him. How does a lecturer “take” a course he or she teaches? A teacher teaches a course and a student “takes” it.
“Customer.” In Nigerian English a “customer” simultaneously refers to one who buys and one who sells. That’s why both buyers and sellers call each other “customers” in Nigerian markets! In Standard English, however, only the buyer is called a customer.
“Troubleshooter.” Many Nigerian English speakers call troublesome people “troubleshooters.” But “troubleshooters” are the exact opposite of troublesome people. The standard meaning of a troubleshooter is someone who remedies troubles. In other words, a troubleshooter is a peacemaker. I think the word Nigerian English speakers are looking for is “troublemaker,” which actually means one who causes trouble.
“Thank God!” Many Nigerians say “Thank God!” in response to an expression of gratitude to them. Every Nigerian understands that to mean, “The credit belongs to God, not me, because it is God who bestowed me with the means to do what I did to you.” It’s born out of religious modesty. But native English speakers won’t understand it like that. They use the expression “Thank God” to mean they are happy something bad didn’t happen, as in, “Thank God no one was hurt after the car summersaulted!” or “Thank God he didn’t embarrass us.”
So saying “Thank God” after someone says “Thank you” to you can only mean one of two things to a native English speaker. It can be interpreted to mean, “Thank God you realize that I did you a favor,” indicating that you initially acted as if you were entitled to the favor for which you’re now thankful. Or it could be interpreted as, “Thank God that you have sense enough to say ‘thank you’,” suggesting that you normally don’t say “thank you” when someone does you a favor.
The conventional idiomatic responses to expressions of gratitude among native speakers are “you’re welcome” (which used to be regarded as an Americanism but which is now used all over the world, including in the UK), “not a problem,” “you bet,” “(it’s) my pleasure,” “don’t mention it” (a peculiarly British expression that is now going out of fashion), “think nothing of it,” etc.
In the United States, people who want to demonstrate the sort of modesty that makes Nigerians say “Thank God” as a response to someone who thanked them say “Thank YOU!” with the emphasis on “you.”
“Scratch/itch.” Itching is the uncomfortable sensation that we feel on our skin, which causes us to scrape it with our fingers; “scratching” is the act of relieving an itchy sensation by using our fingers. But it’s common to hear Nigerians, particularly children, say their body is “scratching” them. When a child in Nigeria told me his body was “scratching” him, I told him to “itch it”!
“Farfetched.” When Nigerians say “the reason is not farfetched,” they mean “the reason isn’t hard to find. But farfetched means “unlikely,” so saying “the reason is not farfetched” is the same thing as saying “the reason is not unlikely,” which is a meaningless double negative at best.
“Sell market.” This expression has origins in Nigerian Pidgin English, but it now regularly occurs in informal Nigerian English. It is said when a trader has a good day in the market, that is, when many customers buy the trader’s goods. In Standard English, “sell market” would be understood as literally selling the land and shops in a market to a person or a corporation.
“Flash.” In Nigerian English, this word means to call a phone number and hang up immediately. Of the word’s many Standard English meanings, the one that native English speakers instinctively relate to is the act of exposing one’s unclothedness in public. I once narrated the story of a native English speaker who ran as fast as his legs could carry him when his Nigerian friend said to him, “let me flash you so you can have my number”! “I didn’t want to see the Unclad body of an old man,” he told me. When I told him what “flash” meant in Nigerian English, he felt bad.
“Go-slow.” This is the Nigerian English term for traffic congestion, also informally known as traffic jam or traffic snarl-up. In British English, however, “go-slow” is a form of industrial protest where workers deliberately slow down their productivity in order to hurt the profits of their employers.
“Homely.” In Nigerian English, this word is used to describe women who are cultured and worthy of being married as wives. In American English, however, when a woman is described as “homely” it means she is ugly.
“Pass out.” Nigerians use “pass out” to mean complete secondary school education or the National Youth Service Corps training and subsequent service. In Standard English, the first thing that comes to people’s mind when you say you’ve “passed out” is that you have fainted. A few weeks ago, several of my young Facebook friends who just finished their NYSC service year shared photos of their “passing out.” I was initially alarmed and expected to see photos of them lying unconscious until I remembered that to “pass out” in Nigerian doesn’t mean to faint.
The Nigerian English use of pass out comes from British English where the expression is used to denote graduating from a military training.